Ronald J. Van Overloop is a missionary-pastor of the Protestant Reformed Churches in Northwest Chicago.
Within the sphere of Reformed believers there has always been a segment who have held as suspect all aspects of evangelism (both mission work and personal witnessing). It is contended that evangelism has historically been the occasion for many departures from the Reformed faith. It is also contended, that if one is truly Reformed, then he cannot expect effective and successful missions. It is falsely assumed that one must be Arminian at least in his methodology if not in his theology if he is to be effective in the work of evangelism.
The baby must not be thrown away with the dirty bath water. Get rid of the dirty water of bad practices and sad histories, but keep the baby of Biblically defined and commanded evangelism.
In fact, the real hope, encouragement, and liberty for all forms of evangelism is found in the God centered gospel, which is one of the chief characteristics of the Reformed faith. The doorway to a hopeful and joyful witness is found by focusing on the sovereign God as man’s Creator and Redeemer.
It can not and may not be denied that there is a lot of dirty water in the church world. There is in the human nature a carnal fascination for size and success. American society is especially keen on having things big. In the church world, too, there is an emphasis on the numerical growth of a church. The really large congregations are held up as examples, and their methods are emulated. Books, pamphlets, and seminary courses on church growth have great popularity.
The Reformed believer does not respond to this carnal fascination with size. He confesses that size is not one of the marks of the true Church. On the contrary Scripture warns against the fascination with large numbers in the history of David and Israel being chastened sorely when David numbered the people (II Samuel 24).
However, this does not cause the Reformed believer to dismiss church growth altogether, nor does he despise it. Rather, following the direction of Scripture, he looks for healthy church growth. He is not suspicious of evangelism. It is not something carnal, but it is highly spiritual. It is the Lord Who adds daily to the Church the ones being saved (Acts 2:47), so if one loves the Lord, then he loves the salvation of His people, and he loves and values the growth of His Body, the Church. He will pray for the growth of the Church, delight in it and look for it.
Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones has given five foundational principles for evangelism and witnessing.
1. The supreme object is to glorify God, not to save souls.
2. The only power that can do the work is the Holy Spirit, not our own strength.
3. The only medium through which the Holy Spirit works is the Scriptures (Paul always “reasoned out of the Scriptures”).
4. The preceding give the true motivation: zeal for God and love of neighbor.
5. There is the constant danger of heresy through false zeal and unscriptural methods.
If one would hold to and follow these principles, then one would be free from fear that evangelism, missions, and witnessing are too dangerous to conduct. At the same time one would be secured from heresy.
To witness is clearly Biblical. “The fruit of the righteous is a tree of life; and he that winneth souls is wise” (Proverbs 11:30). To witness is also clearly Reformed, for one of the reasons given why the Christian must do good works is “that, by our godly conversation, others may be gained to Christ” (Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 32). The idea of witnessing is that of Matthew 5:16, “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.”
It is not just for the super-Christian or for the officebearer to witness. It is the responsibility and privilege of every Christian.
Also, it is not a question of whether or not we witness, but of what kind of witness we are giving. The idea is that our life and speech are our greatest and most effective witness to those about us. Many conceive of witnessing in terms of a neat formula, a set of questions, a friendly personality, eloquence of speech, or such like. However, there is no substitute for holiness of life. Such a holy life is one of prayer for the salvation of others (Romans 10:1). It is a life of humility, a willingness to decrease that God might increase (John 3:30). A holy life is one of kindness (I Corinthians 13:4). Such a holy life is one of confidence in the Spirit’s use of the gospel as the power unto salvation (Romans 1:16). Such a holy life consists of unashamedly defending the honor and glory of God in our life and speech, especially to our neighbor.
Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones warns us of the constant danger of heresy through false zeal and unscriptural methods. Therefore, one must be careful to understand and remember the relationship between witnessing and the preaching of the gospel.
The official and lively preaching of the Word of God within the Church is the chief means of grace. That preaching of Christ crucified, risen, and exalted is the wisdom and power of God unto salvation (I Corinthians 1:20-24). Faith comes through this proclamation of the gospel (Romans 10:14-17).
The Holy Spirit powers this preaching into the hearts and lives of believers. The life, conversation and conduct of the believer carries the message heard on the Lord’s Day throughout the week to his neighbors. So it was with the persecuted, Jerusalem Christians who “went every where preaching the Word’ (Acts 8:4). We might call this preaching in the broader sense. The word “witness” conveys the same idea better, for it frees one from the danger of thinking that those who witness (i.e. all believers) have the right to be called preachers in the same sense as those who are trained, called, and ordained into the ministry of the Word. But while it is wise to use the word “witness”, let it not be forgotten that the Scriptures place great importance and power on the witness (the holy life) of the believer.
To avoid the danger of heresy through false zeal and unscriptural methods, it must be remembered that the ultimate goal of all witnessing is to bring the object of the witness under the weekly preaching of the Word.
One more thing must be said about the relationship between preaching and witnessing: it is the preaching which instructs, admonishes and inspires the believer in the proper motives, contents, and methods of witnessing. The messages heard on the Lord’s Day give the believer the contents and inspiration to live a holy life (witness) in gratitude to God for the salvation experienced.
There is also the danger of making a separation in one’s mind between one’s life in the church and one’s witnessing.
Acts 2 makes it very clear that there were certain characteristics of the Church to which the Lord added daily such as should be saved. Verses 42-47a describe the life of the church to which Christ added. There is a very definite and close relationship between the Lord’s adding and the spiritual condition of the congregation. The church that grows possesses a normal, healthy, spiritual condition. And every member plays an active role in this healthy condition. This passage makes it very clear that, while distributing tracts or going door-to-door may have a place in the life of the individual believer, these are not the first and most important thing. It is vital that each member actively give himself or herself to living in the congregation the healthy spiritual life of the Body of Christ.
That healthy spiritual condition consists of three things in the passage in Acts 2. First, it consists of a steadfast continuance in the apostle’s doctrine. This means that the whole congregation has a lively interest in the Word of God, coming eagerly and expectantly (not reluctantly) to the preaching services.
Secondly, the healthy spiritual condition of a growing church consists of the fellowship of the members among themselves. Over against the constant pressures to lose or corrupt this fellowship each individual believer consciously strives to express his or her fellowship with the fellow-saints.
And thirdly, the healthy spiritual condition of a church consists of the presence of the “fear” of and for God in every soul. This shows that their continuing steadfast in doctrine is not dead orthodoxy or formalism, but a love of God and His truth.
So the individual believer who loves the Lord and His Church, and who is anxious about his calling to be a witness, will labor mightily within his present congregation to be faithful to doctrine, zealous in the worship of Jehovah, and at peace with his fellow-saints.
It is obvious that one may not conceive of witnessing apart from his responsibility to the Church of God.
In a future issue attention will be given to the proper motivation, Scriptural methods, and the encouragements given for witnessing.